The Home Office used location data from an international student’s mobile phone to detain him for allegedly breaking his visa conditions, after it was seized without consent, The Ferret can reveal.
The “harrowing case” saw Midhul Balan – originally from India and who arrived in the UK on a student visa last December – mistakenly targeted in an immigration raid last month. Legal experts say the case may have breached privacy laws.
He and his wife were then detained for almost a month after the Home Office alleged that the man had been working more than the 20 hours allowed by the conditions of his visa.
Balan’s lawyer said he had in fact worked two extra hours for free at a care home, looking after elderly and vulnerable people.
Privacy and migrant campaigners said they feared the “chilling” example highlighted how migrants were “not afforded the same rights and protections against Home Office abuses” of data laws.
‘Orwellian’ Home Office techniques
In recent years the Home Office has been accused of looking at increasingly Orwellian methods of surveillance, including policies on “data extraction”. In August this year it emerged it was considering plans to use smartwatches and facial recognition technology to track the whereabouts of people “subject to immigration control”.
Balan, who paid more than £12,000 in fees to study for a masters at Sheffield Hallam University, insists he has done nothing wrong and is looking to appeal the decision.
He and his wife were sleeping in the bedroom of the shared house where they were living in Stoke-on-Trent when immigration officers – who were carrying out an enforcement raid – forced their way in at 6am.
Though the couple were not suspected of having broken any immigration laws and their names were not those sought by enforcement officers, Bahan says they forced him to hand over his phone, passport and ID card. They demanded his passcode and work address.
After accessing the geolocation – or GPS – function on his phone they claimed he had been at the care home where he worked for more than his visa permitted.
Balan has provided The Ferret with payslips to back his claims that he was only paid for 20 hours, and says he stayed on an extra two hours unpaid.
He had recently moved to the address and shared paperwork with The Ferret which suggests the raid was targeted at previous residents.
The student, who is studying for an MSC in logistics and interpreting at Sheffield Hallam University,” told The Ferret: “They very forcefully took our phones and were asking us lots of questions.
“We were frightened and upset. They said they had checked my phone and said I had done extra hours. I told them I have not but they were not listening to me.”
The couple were taken to a police station for 24 hours and ended up in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre in South Lanarkshire where – despite receiving letters of support from both Balan’s employer and university – they received removal directions back to India.
“Emotionally when we were there we were not good,” he added. “There were no other women at Dungavel and my wife did not get good support. But there was a nice officer who helped me to get in touch with a lawyer.”
The lawyer applied for bail and the couple were released. “But now my visa has been cancelled and I cannot work,” said Balan. “We are surviving only with the help of friends.
“We can’t believe this is how this country has treated us. Before this I worked for five years in Dubai and never had these problems.
“But I wanted to come here to study. I paid £12,660 in fees so I could do that. I had to borrow money, leave my parents who are ageing. I have not done anything wrong and now they are telling me they will send me away?”
Kyle Dalziel, a lawyer with Latta Law, first realised that the Home Office had extracted data from Balan’s phone when he applied for bail. The Home Office’s own submission claimed: “Evidence obtained from Mr Balan’s phone confirmed by his geolocation that he was at [his workplace] for more than his granted visa conditioned hours”.
Dalziel said: “It is standard that we are passed immigration papers from Dungavel – we can find that people are in all sorts of situations. But when we saw that this information had been gathered using his geolocation the whole team was shocked.
“It appears to be that they have taken his phone without consent, and ordered him to provide his passcode without legal advice. There was no evidence presented that they had any suspicion on which to act.
“It really seems that no matter what happens the Home Office finds ways to exceed expectations of how low they can stoop.”
However as Balan has been released back to England, Dalziel is no longer able to represent him, leaving the couple struggling to find a lawyer.
Lucie Audibert, lawyer and legal officer for campaigning organisation Privacy International described it as a “really harrowing story”.
She added: “The position on mobile phone seizures and searches is legally complex. But it sounds like this case was a legal breach.”
Privacy International intervened in a High Court case earlier this year that concerned a Home Office blanket policy of seizing the phones of migrants who arrived by small boats in 2020.
The judgement found that the Home Office was in breach of Article 8 of the European Commission for Human Rights as well as data protection laws and said immigration officers didn’t have the powers to search asylum seekers in a “blanket manner”.
Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which came into force in April, data can only be extracted by police or immigration officers if the phone owner consents to it.
If they do not, officials must have reason to suspect them of a criminal offence to search their phone.
Even then, said Audibert, there are various restrictions in place about what data can be gathered from electronic devices like phones. She also questions how consent can be given in a stressful situation like an iimmigration raid.
She added: “[Balan’s] story is just one example of the Home Office granting itself excessive powers of immigration enforcement.
“Powers of search and seizure are clearly delineated in law, however in an immigration enforcement context we’ve seen some liberal interpretation of the law whereby migrants are not afforded the same rights and protections against abuse.
“These invasive searches and seizures are symptomatic of fishing expeditions whereby imigration officers use their powers to perform immigration raids [then] search individuals who are not suspected of a criminal offence and to try and find any kind of incriminating evidence against them.”
UK immigration targets
The UK’s Government’s International Education Strategy aimed to increase the number of international students in the UK higher education system to 600,000 by 2030 and increase the value of “education exports” to £35bn.
This target was reached for the first time in 2020-21, with 605,130 international higher education students studying in the UK in universities, further education colleges, and alternative providers.
However this week Home Secretary Suella Braverman told a Conservative party fringe meeting that as part of the aim to reduce net migration “we have got to definitely substantially reduce the number of students, the number of work visas and in particular the number of dependents on those sorts of visas”.
Sahdya Darr, migrant digital justice programme manager of digital rights campaigners the Open Rights Group, said cases like Balan’s gave “a chilling indication of the direction of travel and the kinds of things we are increasingly going to see happen”.
“The use of technology in immigration control is basically another way of further entrenching the hostile environment,” she added.
“Tech has already been used at borders but this goes beyond that. It tells us that this is a system that will be hostile to all migrants. In the human rights space people are joining together to monitor this.”
A Home Office spokesperson said it did not comment on individual cases. But they added: “Immigration Enforcement officers are permitted to exercise their powers under Section 47 of the Immigration Act 2016 when they have reasonable grounds to suspect an offence has been committed.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/greenbutterfly